The Valley of Eden
Central African Republic
The heat was like a furnace. Sweat evaporated instantly. Our clothes burned on our skin. We sought shelter under the tarpaulin spread over the lorry, and relief in the breeze as we shot across the Savannah. We had not encountered any people for days. We were short of food and water and had no idea exactly where we were on our journey across central Africa. So I do not know how we came to stumble across the valley of Eden.
Once we had spotted a hint of green, there was no argument about where to pitch camp. As we approached, we realized that it was the edge of a forest. A green shore after crossing an ocean of dust.
We climbed from the lorry, blinking into the sun. Chores were assigned quickly; everyone was keen to explore. I sneaked away, promising myself to make up for it later.
There was a path among the vegetation, not made by people. The air smelled of animal dung. I felt my way carefully, senses sharpened. A rustling in the canopy startled me; a pair of Colobus monkeys jumped between the branches, their black and white fur flashing. Hornbills perched in the trees and butterflies fluttered above the grass. The path ended abruptly at a wall of rock, half-enclosing a cool, deep pool. To one side, a waterfall cascaded down at least 100 feet. Just above the pool, it splashed through steps washed into the rock, forming Jacuzzis and tubs of sparkling water.
Some of the others joined me, including the group leader, Rolf, undoubtedly wanting a word. Nobody said anything. We stared at the pool and waterfall. Above us, surrounded by jungle and the wall of rock and water, there was a hole of flawlessly blue sky. The once fierce sun filtered through the vegetation and mist like a caress. Rolf turned to the rock wall. Mosses and roots hung from the slippery stone, providing handholds. “Come on,” he said and started the ascent. The fitter members of the team quickly climbed ahead: freckly, pretty, up-for-anything Rita with her lush boyfriend Pete, and Max, the spindly hippie – placid, at-one with nature, strong and stubborn as a mule. Despite his gruffness, Rolf held back and gave me a hand. Above the waterfall, the stream turned into a murmuring creek which gathered in another pool before tumbling over the edge. On either side there was a narrow fringe of lush green. We could see the steppe between the dancing leaves, but next to the mossy rocks it could have been jungle. It was like an advert for Barcadi rum: Rolf a wizened pirate and we the models, tanned bodies luxuriating in the pool or stretched out over the rocks. Only the parrots were missing.
Back in camp it was quickly decided to stay another day. Our worries about water were over and, for once, nobody minded rationing; eating flour patties baked in the ash of the fire as we had for many days.
Early next morning, before the heat took hold, my friend Annette, Max and I walked to the creek to fill the water canisters. We had a few moments to explore before the camp was properly awake. The creek emerged from the parched soil just a few hundred yards beyond the waterfall. Underground springs burst from the ground in a profusion of life: an artery of green and, nearby, a small, muddy waterhole. Covered by the vegetation, we watched warthogs gathered around it. We hoped for gazelles, maybe even elephants. Max, showing us how to roll leaf-cups to drink from the stream, froze in mid scoop and indicated a group of baboons in the branches. A young female watched us. Curiosity vied with shyness, but gradually she edged closer. Several juveniles appeared around her. Given time, it seemed we could reach out to them. Suddenly – a shriek of alarm and the monkeys had melted into the bush.
“Sshh,” Max whispered: “Leopard!”
Gripped by fear, nobody moved a muscle. I stripped the vegetation with my gaze. Nothing but green leaves and dancing sun-spots. Nothing but the awareness of a presence: primeval, wild and dangerous. We remained motionless. After a tense moment Max relaxed. Following his example, we slowly reached for the canisters and retracted, crouching, to the vegetation’s edge. Slowly, we straightened.
“Don’t run,” Max hissed: “Make noise!”
We banged the canisters and shouted at the top of our voices while walking back to the camp. The commotion drained our fear and alerted everybody. Within hours we had organised our chores. When we broke camp next morning, the only remains of our presence were a patch of ash where the fire had been, three crumpled leaf-cups floating in a rock-pool and our footprints in the valley of Eden.